Alzheimer's Disease

This slowly progressive brain disorder – marked by increasing memory loss and disorientation – is a heart-wrenching experience for patients and caregivers. Early treatment may help to slow down or temporarily reverse the course of this devastating illness.

What is it?

Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative brain disorder, impairs memory and mental functioning. The onset is typically very slow. Initially, Alzheimer's sufferers have short-term memory loss and difficulty in making decisions; they may forget how to perform simple tasks. Advanced stages bring loss of memory and speech, loss of bladder and bowel control, and changes in temperament, such as excessive hostility or withdrawal. Alzheimer's disease affects about 6% or people over the age of 65, and 20% to 40% of those over 85.

What causes it?

Experts still aren't sure what causes Alzheimer's disease. They do know that it's marked by a major loss of nerve cells in the brain, particularly in areas controlling memory and thinking. The disease is also characterised by reduced levels of brain chemicals important for memory. Decreased blood flow in the brain or a series of small strokes may contribute to memory loss as well. A family history of the disease can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's. As can increased age and Down's syndrome. Other possible causes include serious head injury, cardiovascular disease, thyroid dysfunction and slow-acting viruses. Recent studies indicate that aluminium (for example, from cookware) is unlikely to cause Alzheimer's, but it is still advisable to avoid aluminium where possible.

What are the symptoms?

  • Memory loss, including inability to recall recent events and difficulty in finding appropriate words or solving basic problems.
  • Disorientation, including getting lost in a familiar place – such as home or neighbourhood.
  • Personality changes, marked by agitation, anxiety, combativeness, indifference to others, social withdrawal or poor judgement.
  • Language impairment, such as rambling speech, long pauses and thought repetition.

Are there any natural therapies?

Although there's no cure for Alzheimer's, scientists continue to make strides in treating the symptoms. Supplements may help to restore mental functioning during the earlier stages of the disease, and may even delay the onset of advanced symptoms. Begin taking supplements as soon as possible; take them individually or together. It may be at least eight weeks before you notice any results. The supplements can also be used with prescription drugs, such as tacrine or donepezil, but always check with your doctor first.

Controlled trials have demonstrated that the herb gingko biloba, which increases the brain's blood supply, may improve memory in some people. It may have antioxidant properties as well, playing a key role in maintaining healthy nerve cells. Other antioxidants that may be beneficial include vitamin C, vitamin E, mixed carotenoids and coenzyme Q10. 

In addition, be sure to get enough B vitamins – low levels have been associated with Alzheimer's. Include vitamin B complex, as well as extra bitamin B6. Also worth tryng are evening primrose oil and the herbs gotu kola and Siberian ginseng; all may improve memory by improving the transmission of nerve impulses. Two other nutrients may help by boosting memory-enhancing brain chemicals; the amino-acid-like sbstances acetyl L-carnitine (500 mg three times a day) or phosphatidylserine (100 mg three times a day). See which one works best for you.

What else can I do?

  • Exercise. Even a short daily walk may improve mental abilities.
  • Keep your mind active by reading or performing memory exercises.
  • Stay relaxed to improve memory and concentration.

Did you know?

Arthritis sufferers have a strikingly low incidence of Alzheimer's, perhaps because they take ibuprofen, aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve joint pain. Researchers are studying possible roles for these over-the-counter drugs as weapons against Alzheimer's.